Thursday, September 6, 2018

AHS: Crazytown:
Administration on the verge of a 'nervous breakdown'

FANS OF anthology television know the acronym “AHS” is shorthand for American Horror Story, the riveting and popular anthology TV series created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk in 2011. Every season since, fans have been treated to a new AHS set in a new locale with new characters and new and more horrific events. Last season’s AHS: Cult examined life in a small Michigan town in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, exploring the dark side of small-town politics.

Maybe it’s time to consider flipping the script on what Cult examined. If Murphy and Falchuk ever briefly thought to give the AHS franchise a reality TV twist, they might consider a season not just inspired by that election, but one actually set in the chaotic, deliberately turbulent White House of Donald Trump, the president* whose thoroughly unleashed id has transformed the presidency and the national attention ... and ushered in horrors that TV couldn’t imagine.

A fresh parade of horribles seems to step off at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue every day, and thanks in part to a forthcoming book by the reigning investigative reporter in America, we’re witness to the degree to which name calling, backbiting, general bad manners, and various weightier civic atrocities that rise to the level of what the author calls an “administrative coup d’etat” are, going away, the rule at House Trump, not the exception.

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Fear (in bookstores Sept. 11) is the latest from Bob Woodward, the celebrated Washington Post investigative journalist in his own right, and one-half the dynamic duo that uncovered the Watergate scandal and hastened the political demise of Richard Nixon in 1974. Woodward turns his reporter’s eye on the Trump White House, its quirks and abundant dysfunctions. While only excerpts are available — some at The Post — those fragments deeply, sometimes comically, illustrate a White House in meltdown mode.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions comes in for particular abuse by The Don. It’s widely known that Trump excoriated Sessions for refusing to recuse himself in the continuing investigation into Russia’s hacking of the 2016 election. Woodward reports that Trump called him a “traitor” for the act of doing his job.

Trump — doing his best impersonation of Captain Bligh on the Bounty or Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny — reportedly said “everyone was out to get” him. At one point, Woodward writes, the president* mocked Sessions’ strong accent, saying to a staffer, “This guy is mentally retarded. He’s this dumb Southerner… He couldn’t even be a one-person country lawyer down in Alabama.”

Woodward writes that Chief of Staff John Kelly often lost his temper and told close aides that he thought Trump was “unhinged.” At one meeting, Kelly allegedly said to colleagues: “He’s an idiot. It’s pointless to try to convince him of anything. He’s gone off the rails. We’re in Crazytown. I don’t even know why any of us are here. This is the worst job I’ve ever had.”

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OTHERS DID what they could to blunt The Don’s “most dangerous impulses,” Woodward reports. In a meeting in January 2018, Defense Secretary James Mattis was angrily nonplussed at Trump’s dismissal of the value of a U.S. military presence in the Korean Peninsula — basically, Trump’s attempt to reduce the need for that military presence to a mere financial cost-benefit analysis. Woodward writes that Trump questioned why the United States was expending financial resources in the region at all.

“I think we could be so rich if we weren't stupid,” Trump later said in the meeting. Woodward reported that later, Trump said the United States was being played for “suckers.” Mattis testily countered, “We’re doing this in order to prevent World War III,” he said to Trump, according to Woodward’s account.

After Trump left the meeting, Woodward writes, “Mattis was particularly exasperated and alarmed, telling close associates that the president acted like—and had the understanding of—‘a fifth- or sixth-grader.’”

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According to Woodward, Trump insulted his top cabinet members. He reportedly mocked H.R. McMaster, his former national security adviser, saying he dressed in suits that made him look like “like a beer salesman.”

Woodward wrote that Trump allegedly told Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross that “I don’t trust you. I don’t want you doing any more negotiations … You’re past your prime.”

But the problems go beyond petty backbiting and doing the innuendo. Sometimes, matters of geopolitical importance hang in the balance. Woodward reports that Gary Cohn, former Goldman Sachs jefe and Trump’s former chief economic adviser, took official documents off Trump’s desk to keep him from signing them, including a notification letter to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement.

“I stole it off his desk,” Cohn said to an associate, speaking about a document that would have withdrawn the United States from an important trade deal with South Korea, according to excerpts that were vetted by CNN. “I wouldn't let him see it. He's never going to see that document. Got to protect the country.”

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NEEDLESS TO SAY, House Trump was quick with attempts to minimize both the book and its author. Trump himself called it “a piece of fiction” or “a work of fiction” more than once on Wednesday. Kelly and Mattis issued statements calling Woodward’s assertions scurrilous fakery. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a budding fictionist in her own right, dismissed Fear in a statement whose irony is everywhere:

“This book is nothing more than fabricated stories, many by former disgruntled employees, told to make the President look bad. While it is not always pretty, and rare that the press actually covers it, President Trump has broken through the bureaucratic process to deliver unprecedented successes for the American people.

“Sometimes it is unconventional, but he always gets results. Democrats and their allies in the media understand the President's policies are working and with success like this, no one can beat him in 2020 – not even close.”

The problem with buying into the White House’s ritual denials of this book’s accuracy is the number of this book’s predecessors. Fear is only the latest of works about life in the hothouse bowels of House Trump; setting aside matters of journalistic pedigree and track record, you’re struck with their consistency. From the inside and the outside, they document various perspectives of an administration on the verge of, or in the throes of, what Woodward called a “nervous breakdown.”

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Fire and Fury, by seasoned investigative reporter Michael Wolff, got outta the gate early. Published in January, Wolff’s book examines the early iterations of House Trump, in the first fits of power and pique, as Wolff moved around the White House with a long-term visitor's pass. His fly-on-the-wall approach angered Team Trump.

In August, with her own fire and fury, Omarosa Manigault Newman, a longtime Trump Apprentice-era kindred spirit and former Trump administration official, published Unhinged, her own account of life during Trumptime in the White House. Also in August, Rick Wilson, a former Republican strategist, released Everything Trump Touches Dies, his viewpoint from the perspective of a GOP strategist and adman. And there were others before: Gaslighting America, The Plot to Destroy Democracy, Trumpocracy, and more.

All of them illustrate a White House whose characterization as “Crazytown” couldn’t be more universally embraced; all of them, in their various ways, sign on to the ominous sentiment embodied in the title of another book on the Trump administration: It’s Even Worse Than You Think.

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WOODWARD ALSO recounts presidential hubris that’s downright laughable in its presumption. After Twitter, The Don’s social platform of choice, doubled its character limit to 280 per tweet, Trump reportedly called it “a good thing, but it's a bit of a shame because I was the Ernest Hemingway of 140 characters.”

If you look past the sheer towering foolishness of a comparison like that — the White House Counsel should expect a defamation lawsuit from the Hemingway estate — you read the words of a man enamored of himself, utterly reliant in his ability to write his way out of this crisis a few hundred characters at a time.

He’s going up against writers and journalists and experts in the word — scribes that can sustain thought and argument for more than 140 characters at once. Or even 280. As the mayor of Crazytown, he’s free to enact any law or enforce any edicts he sees fit. But the authors of several books, and more besides, are taking him to task for (among other things) failing to recognize the boundaries of his absolute authority.

Trump may run Crazytown with an iron grip and his word as law.

The United States of America is another place, and another matter, entirely.

Image credits: Fear cover: © 2018 Simon & Schuster. Mattis: via @thehill. Everything Trump Touches Dies cover: © 2018 Free Press. Gary Cohn: via @BusinessInsider. Unhinged cover: © 2018 Gallery Books.

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